The press materials for Lifetime’s “Drop Dead Diva” contained glowing testimonials from women’s groups, providing another reminder that such advocates needn’t be overly concerned with originality. Granted, there’s much to be said for a program featuring a smart, plus-sized heroine in today’s rail-thin TV world, but “Diva” undernourishes its premise amid a sea of legal-procedural banalities. Stage actress Brooke Elliott makes for an appealing lead — always a good place to start — but constructing a show around her without the contrived “Here Comes Ms. Jordan” template might have been a more fruitful approach.
“Diva” begins with a simple premise: trapping an image-obsessed model inside an overweight woman’s body. It’s just that in the pilot, anyway, the epiphanies come a little too easily, and the legal triumphs predicated on knowledge of posing are a little too “Legally Blonde.”
The introductory hour establishes Jane Bingum (Elliott) as a bright, up-and-coming attorney and Deb (Brooke D’Orsay) as the aforementioned model, who aspires to nothing more than a gig waving at furniture on “The Price Is Right.” Both die well before their time — the latter a victim of her own shallowness, applying makeup while driving — before Deb causes a mix-up at heaven’s gates that propels her soul back to Earth and into Jane’s body.
So Deb now has to deal with no longer being a size zero and pining for her boyfriend (Jackson Hurst), a lawyer who inconveniently works with Jane. At the same time, series creator Josh Berman launches into a pair of civil cases that would at best represent “B” plots on “Boston Legal,” while guardian angel Fred (Ben Feldman) periodically drops in to remind Deb of the rules that she persists in breaking.
Structurally, the show seems to be cheating a bit since, despite Fred’s explanation that “memories remain with the soul,” the airheaded Deb retains Jane’s legal acumen. This allows her to function in court, with a few inevitable glitches. Although characters have been spiritually trading places for years (see “Freaky Friday,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” etc.), letting one body house intellectual elements from both clouds the audience’s emotional investment — especially since Deb wasn’t particularly likable in the brief time we got to know her.
In a missed opportunity that subsequent episodes hopefully will correct, the pilot also makes scant use of the supporting cast’s most prominent member, comic Margaret Cho, as Jane’s loyal assistant.
Lifetime is no doubt banking on Elliott’s charisma to go a long way, especially with many women understandably tired of a TV landscape where all those female characters on the CW seldom tip the scales north of 110. By that measure “Diva” has potential, but just as when the revived Jane first squeezes into Deb’s old clothes, it’s an awkward fit.